Sinfonia Antartica; Four Last Songs; Concerto for Two Pianos
Mari Eriksmoen (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier (piano); Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5186 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Vaughan Williams’s Piano Concerto still has a daunting reputation – its percussive chromatic runs completely overwhelmed its dedicatee Harriet Cohen. The late Joseph Cooper prepared this two-piano edition, for which the composer added extra bars and a serene closing cadenza, with a striking final fade well suited to Louis Lortie’s expansive yet nuanced approach. Either he or Hélène Mercier could probably polish off the original by themselves, but their partnership develops its intensity without strain, particularly attractive in rich SACD sound. Davis is at his most dynamic, and the Bergen Philharmonic playing is characteristically crisp. This would be my present first choice, though Ashley Wass’s spirited account of the original on Naxos is equally fine, too.
I was never so convinced by Davis’s earlier, somewhat colourless Antartica (Warner), but this, if not definitive, is a finer animal. It begins less epically than some, but gathers scale and momentum. The Bergen players are especially effective, the huge orchestration never cluttered or opaque in SACD spaciousness. The composer rightly saw Scott, despite some misjudgements, as authentically heroic, and Davis movingly paces the last movement’s classical tragedy, finally swallowed up in the uncaring ice.
Though the title Four Last Songs invites unfortunate comparisons with Richard Strauss’s cycle, these are the composer’s final settings of his wife Ursula’s verses on the subject of love. Orchestrated by Anthony Payne, they’re attractive if unexceptional, but Roderick Williams does evoke their essential tenderness.
Michael Scott Rohan